Arthur Lubow suggests in an insightful article about the new MoMA that the museum’s own curators “no longer believe that art progresses like science.” How very odd that they ever did. I giggle at the image of Braques striving to fill in empty boxes, as in Mendelev’s chart, or completing a map like that of the human genome. The marvel is how this simplification of the way science works ever became a model for the history of art.
Science, of course, does not progress in a lock step manner, but it does build on what went before. Isaac Newton recognized his debt to Galileo and Kepler in formulating the laws of motion, as he wrote in 1676. “If I have seen further [than certain other men] it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.” Science has advanced incrementally, as Newton acknowledges, but there have also been dead ends and concepts—for example, the idea of the “ether,” a medium for light to travel through space.
Art changes in other ways, of course, but there is no reason why this vital expression of human creativity has to “progress” at all. The great cave paintings in France and Spain, executed some 30,000 years ago, stun our modern sensibilities, as do the works of Michelangelo, Dürer, Picasso, and Annie Liebovitz. It is true that the critical eye can trace a narrow path from Monet to Cézanne, to Picasso to Abstract Expressionism, but that means neglecting a lot of work that was being done at the same time. The idea that art “progresses,” as in a relay race, each participant handing off his brush to the next runner, is ill-conceived.
Rather than define change as “progress,” a linear development in one direction, we might turn to a Darwinian image of an evolutionary tree with many branches. At present, we can see some of these branches (displayed today at MoMA) as newer art forms such as video, performance, and sound art, but including branches that display traditional framed images and a broad range of artists, some from heretofore unrepresented populations. Science, too, has branched out as powerful tools—new instruments such as microscopes and telescopes—and new mathematics produced by extremely powerful computers, have forced theorists to redesign their models.
To wring one’s hands at the lack of “progress” in art today reflects, at the very least, a lack of both imagination and a sense of history.
— Bettyann Holtzmann Kevles, Lecturer, Department of History, Yale University